Conversations with Godwin Home Page    Next Conversation

Conversations with Godwin

1: Teaching


Jyoti: I thought in this first talk it would be useful to examine some areas to do with teaching meditation. There are a couple of points I could raise to start off. Most people when they start meditation, or on the spiritual life, have a great need for a teacher because the regions they are entering into are uncharted by themselves. They may have read books, but maps, being abstract, do not correspond to concrete reality. One of the things that a teacher is able to do is to respond to an individual in his concrete situation - in this sense it seems to me that a teacher is indispensable. But a good teacher will, I think, make himself dispensable as soon as possible, by showing you how your body, your feelings, your mind, and your relationships with other people and with the world, how all these things can be your teacher as well. This is one aspect.

Another is, I think a lot of people are not actually looking for a teacher, what they are looking for is an archetypal father or mother - someone who can tell them what it's all about, not help them enquire. The first role people play is when they internalise the mother or father figure, and I think the teacher can take the place of the superego in this way - and with some people this is what they are really looking for, not to learn, but for someone who knows.

Godwin: Let me make some comments about the second part of this. I think it is true that some people need figures of authority. Sometimes when they find such a teacher or guru it can take the form of being dependent on them, and they then take up a very easy position that what they have to do is merely to surrender to them, to accept them completely, so that they don't have to do anything on their own. It is an easy way out. There are some gurus who take up that position also. This is one type of relationship that is found in certain traditions. Some aspects of this are that in these traditions only a guru can initiate the student. Also he is supposed to have a secret teaching that can be transmitted to the student.

In the Theravada Buddhist tradition there is no place for such gurus. There is instead a beautiful word, which I like very much: kalyana-mitta, a spiritual friend. In this tradition the teacher is really a spiritual friend - it's a different relationship altogether. There are some spiritual teachers who are really learning while they are teaching, so then it comes to sharing, and helping each other - that's a beautiful relationship to have.

Jyoti: I understand what you are saying, but I would like to press you a little further, because it seems to me that a teacher has to be able to answer whatever questions are raised, and therefore he must have some sort of conclusion about what the answer should be.

Godwin: I would suggest that a good teacher should not have any conclusions. If he has a conclusion then he might try to impose that conclusion on others - and then he becomes a figure of authority. A teacher, as I see him, without taking up a particular position, can start exploring with the student: a problem is raised, then there is a sharing together with the emphasis on experience. When that happens the element of dependence is much less. I think a good teacher is someone who is helping another to help his or her self, he helps a student to discover whatever it is they need to discover about themselves. A teacher, in that sense, only provides a helpful atmosphere, perhaps offering some loose guidelines, and then leaves the student to make their own discoveries.

Jyoti: It sometimes happens that a teacher gets raised to guru status in spite of his every effort - I'm thinking of Ramana Maharshi, for instance, who despite his early resistance, eventually had to let it happen, and they deified him. He retained his humility, but he couldn't prevent it happening.

Godwin: This is because there are people who need figures of authority, it is a psychological need, and is bound to arise in certain situations.

Another sort of teacher is one who is teaching without knowing that he is teaching. If there can be such teaching then the need for role-playing does not arise. Such teachers teach not so much by imparting information, as with their whole being, and that way they touch their students at a much deeper level.

Now let me say something about different types of teaching. For instance, in the Zen tradition, a teacher may very skilfully give rise to a crisis situation, where the familiar world, and the student's conclusions about it, just drop away, and at that moment insight can arise. It calls for really great skill for a teacher to use a crisis situation, or to create one.

Now another way, and one quite opposite to this, is where the teacher may play the role of a comedian, and one aspect of humour is being able to laugh at the absurdity of life, and another is nor taking oneself too seriously.

Jyoti: Humour is once again a disruption of the natural or expected course of events.

Godwin: Now I would also like to suggest that a teacher can come in many forms. If we are open, if - as it is said in the Zen tradition - we have a beginner's mind, we can learn from anyone, and from any experience. One can learn a great deal from children in this respect. Isn't it mentioned in one of the Gospels?

Jyoti: Yes, it says: `Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven' (Matthew 18:3). How would you interpret that saving?

Godwin: I think generally speaking a child does not have so much of an image to impose on the world, a child is very natural, just being his or her self.

Jyoti: With a child you do not get, for instance a deferment of anger, a child just becomes angry, and then five minutes later it can be doing something totally different. But when you get older you get deferment and this can give rise to resentment.

Godwin: How is it that a child can get angry like this and a few minutes later be totally recovered, how is that possible?

Jyoti: One reason is that a child is instantaneously using his energy there, whereas an adult is repressing that energy, an adult has a model: I shouldn't be angry, but a child has no such idea.

Godwin: Yes, because a child does not have this idea about not getting angry, the anger just arises and then it goes away.

I would say that an enlightened person also does not have an image about how he or she should behave, therefore there is no reason for that person to suffer, become victims of them. Normally we take things for granted, but a mediator should never take anything for granted - he starts from scratch, without any assumptions. Then there is an element of joy in the experience, any experience can be a learning experience - we are not afraid, and we give up the idea of perfection.

A different point I would like to make is that it can become a trap when one takes to teaching. If one neglects one's own practice, then one falls into what can be described as a 'helping' syndrome - this is one of the biggest dangers of teaching. Another is pride and conceit - one starts comparing oneself with other teachers, students start complementing one, and so on, and then fame and recognition come. Then it is easy to forget why one has taken to the spiritual path. Also, some teachers become fixated with particular techniques, and that gives rise to tension and rivalry between teachers who prefer other techniques - it's terrible, here you are, you're whole idea was to become free, and one has become a prisoner without realising it!