Playing With Fire: Teacher-Student Relations.

Via on May 23, 2011

The Prenuptial Basis of Relationship.

In my opinion, the institution of marriage looks more like a contractual agreement than a genuine connection. I know that relationships are not always contrived, but in many cases, there is a type of coercion at play. It seems like we are all the time trying to work out some sort of fundamental prenuptial agreement. Not necessarily a material prenup, but a psychological one. The psychological prenup is a fundamental attempt to secure our ego-centric assets before any real commitment is made. In fact, it is a left-handed way of avoiding commitment. Some form of certainty, some type of assurance is needed before we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable, which means we never actually embrace our vulnerability. We look to eliminate any-&-all risk, which is a primary ingredient in commitment and transformation.

This basic prenup is an attempt to eliminate any trace of uncertainty from the environment. We set out in search of an image, a finished product…a sure thing. We aren’t concerned with “where the other person is at,” we want to know “where they are going.” We want to skip to the end, to the conclusion.

Having blown through all of the “romantic rhetoric” and “pillow talk” we enter into a series of negotiations. During this process, we narrow the field of contestants down to that special someone who shares our vision for the future. Basically, someone else that is motivated by a similar set of hopes and fears. We are looking for a partner that shares similar motivations, someone who wants to go where we want to go. Our vision is non-negotiable. So, instead of learning to let go and compromise, the ego probes the earth for a partner with similar non-negotiables.

This shared vision is a collection of expectations, which touch upon every aspect of our lives. In fact, from an ego-centric point of view, it is our life. It is a vision of how things should be. We believe that we should work a certain number of hours at a certain job. We should dress like this and act like that. We think we should have 2.5 children, and live in the suburbs, commuting back-&-forth in our hybrid electric car. We need a dog, hobby, and white picket fence. This is a stereotypical version of the vision. There are a great many examples that seem to be creative visions at first glance, but when we look closer, these “creative lifestyles” are revealed to be reactions to the status quo. Even not entering into relationship can be seen as a reaction to the norm. In truth, the vision has as many variations as it does authors, but the formula is always the same: My life should look like that, but I have to do this in order to get that. Often times, a partner is an indispensable component in the assembly of our vision. So, we search for a partner who is committed to doing this in order to get that.

Without questioning the origin of these ideas, we make arrangements that orbit around these expectations. When we find someone who shares our expectations, we look to own them—we want to seize the vision, of which an agreeable partner is a key component. From this point of view, relationship is an institution of joint ownership, where each individual sacrifices their autonomy or right to be authentic for the maintenance of the collective vision. Our lover is, from a certain point of view, nothing more than a variable that is plugged in to our equation for personal happiness.

So what is the origin of our expectations?

Well, it is quite simple. Our ideas about how things should be are inspired by our ideas about how things “shouldn’t be. In other words, expectations are the pressing out or expression of fear. We expect such-&-such to happen, because we are terrified that it’s painful opposite will come to pass. So, we try to seduce the environment with our expectations—we try to force everyone around us to act in accordance with our expectations, which are defined by our fears. From this point of view, relationship is an example of the old adage, “an enemy of my enemy is my friend!” We are so terrified of our fears that we develop friendly relations with someone who shares the same insecurities. We are attracted, not only to their repulsion towards those things in ourselves that we consider repulsive, but also to their willingness to completely ignore or suppress those terrifying qualities.

In such a relationship, neither party is honest enough to talk about their fears. Instead, they move through life unchallenged, because they have agreed to use relationship as a defense mechanism that validates and confirms their insecurities. They have agreed to create and maintain yet another distraction.

This dynamic forces us to talk in the code. Such relationships are plagued with communication problems, because nothing is direct. Speaking in a lofty and wishful dialect we voice our concerns in the language of expectations. Instead of saying, “This is what scares me.”, we say, “This is what I want out of a relationship.” We are hardly concerned with what we can bring to the table; we are only concerned with what we can get out of the situation. The relationship is organized around insecurity, so it is governed by a poverty mentality—we do not feel like we have anything to offer. Furthermore, the relationship validates or confirms this belief in our own insufficiency.

Photo courtesy of Eurobas

In fear inspired relationships, success is measured by the efficiency of our expectations. In other words, is our co-distraction working? Are our expectations effectively masking our fears and insecurities, or are we constantly being confronted with uncomfortable truths? We have created a metric system that defines moments when our expectations have failed to hide or protect our insecurities—arguments, serious discussions, or periods of separation—as bad, unpleasant moments. Thus, we remove the one element of relationship that works toward the restoration of sanity. At this point, the sanctity of the relationship is completely misplaced, and misery is the unavoidable the consequence.

We are painting a picture, but it is not an original piece. It is a picture that has been passed down from generation to generation via the conditioned consequences of living a life organized around expectations. These conditioned consequences are our fears. These fears first surfaced when we were small children witnessing the inefficiencies of this very system being played out in the relationships that now serve as our model. These conditioned consequences now finance the construction of our world of expectations. Fear based relationships are cyclic relationships. In fact, the relationship itself is the pattern. It is yet another example of the ego hijacking a natural inclination to express ourselves, and turning it into a mechanism that defends insanity, thereby preserving the ego.

So, what does this have to do with the teacher-student relationship?

This is the model that more or less defines relationship. But what does relationship look like when the individual isn’t inspired by fear?

The teacher student-relationship is a relationship that many westerners find uncomfortable. We accommodate this discomfort in a variety of ways. Often times, we discount the relationship by saying, “It is an outdated or archaic institution.” As if books or YouTube has somehow replaced the need for genuine interaction! Other times, we disregard the need for a personal relationship with a teacher by saying, “I can do this stuff on my own.” Perhaps, there just isn’t a teacher nearby or we do not feel inspired to get up and seek out such a relationship. Whatever the justification, it is just that, a justification…

Simply put, the relationship makes us uncomfortable. It is a relationship, so it is organized, but it is not organized around some contrived center. Instead of revolving around a shared vision of how things should or shouldn’t be, this relationship is organized around what is. The teacher-student relationship is organically organized by and around the fundamental principle of isness. Space is the eternal element of the present moment that facilitates change. This change or movement is intelligence. Space and intelligence are of “one substance.” This single substance or isness sits at the center of our relationship with the teacher. In fact, it sits at the center of every relationship we enter, but we fail to acknowledge it, and even go to great lengths to ignore this principle. In other words, most of our relationships are an agreement to create and defend a make-believe world!

Initially, we approach the relationship with our spiritual friend just as we would any other relationship. We hear the teacher articulate some position. We believe this is their opinion of how things “should be.” We think that we must force our ideas to conform to his or her ideas. Their point of view is radical, so conformity is challenging. We are terrified of putting ourselves out there. We do not want to have to defend our ideas, for fear of having our fears revealed. If we put our ideas out there, we run the risk of their source being exposed—the fears that inspired these expectations being revealed. We assume that the teacher is selling an idea about how things should be, but this is only us projecting upon the environment the inner workings of our own neurotic mind. With the spiritual friend it is not the perspective that is of importance. It is the process. Processes are intelligent because they are spacious. Perspectives are expired because they are solid, static-images. Process is the lifeblood of sanity. Static images are the breeding ground of insanity.

We have recognized the confidence and sanity that defines this person’s presence. In fact, this is what has drawn us to this person. There is something ancient that dwells within us. Through likeness, this primordial experience gravitates toward the confidence and sanity the teacher’s presence communicates. It reminds us of our original face. This is why people often talk about being in the presence of a realized being. But there are two sides to every story…

The ego’s version of the story is a little different. In the ego’s story the teacher is a dangerous friend. From a self-centered point of view, the teacher’s confidence and sanity is seen as intimidating. We start trying to pigeonhole them into a predictable idea or theory. When we have solidified their perspective into a “particular position” we become frightened or timid. The ego is a “subtle activity,” a game that seeks to perpetuate itself. In other words, the point of the game is to keep the game going. By virtue of their presence, the teacher challenges the integrity of the game. So, in an attempt to keep the game alive, we withdrawal or avoid the relationship altogether.

We try to nail them down on some particular point. Once we feel like we have seen their angle, apprehension sets in. We recognize that the teacher sees the world from a totally different point of view, a challenging point of view. Our point of view—the ego—declares this situation dangerous and runs like hell. Either we conclude that a prerequisite to relationship is converting to their world view or we knit-pick their apparent position from a safe distance. In other words, we feel that we have to get our shit together before we can enter into relationship with this person or we minimize the need for relationship, by creating the illusion of our own superiority. In an attempt to salvage our sense of self, we romanticize the relationship or become cold and distant. In either case we avoid genuine interaction by ignoring the only ground that can accommodate an authentic interaction—reality.

In point of fact, a real teacher is open-minded. They have no perspective; at least not a solid or static point of view. There is no way to coerce certainty out of a constantly evolving situation. That is the ego’s problem with reality, and that is what inspired the ego to create the world of distractions it now inhabits. So, the ego tries to seduce the teacher. It attempts to translate our spiritual friend’s words into it’s language. Without some sort of reference point, the ego is without definition. The ego, being a conceptual entity, is diminished to a mere word—”I”—when it is without definition. The ego cannot enter into a relationship with space. Space is chaos as far as the ego is concerned. The teacher is the personification of space, as they have rediscovered and now express the true nature of mind. So, in order to keep the game going, the ego tries to freeze this space into some solid idea. When it becomes obvious that this is an impossible task, the ego churns out distraction after distraction in order to avoid the presence of space.

So, we try that prenuptial shit with the spiritual friend. We seek to eliminate uncertainty or space. We try to transform the spiritual friend into a finished product, a conclusion. As we soon learn, with the spiritual friend conclusions are of no importance, because the conclusion never comes. Since we are waiting on a conclusion that will never come, like Naropa, we fail to see the Guru. What is of importance is the process. As was the case with Naropa, our “trials” are the path.

Touching and going. Coming back to space. Touching space. Then, allowing your mind to reflect this space, to be inspired by space. Unlearning the tendency to create a distraction, and rediscovering the capacity to mingle with space. This is what the teacher is communicating. This is the process, and it is sanity.

From a fixed point of view, relationship with a genuine teacher is sort of bi-polar…

Nothing is pre-ordained. It is a truly spontaneous situation. However it isn’t pointless. It is just that the point is never fixed. One minute you’re having lunch… Next thing you know, your standing there naked. You are disoriented. All reference points have been exposed. You’re stripped bear. Looking out from a self-imposed center, relationship with the spiritual friend seems impossible. The experience seems surgical, but raw. It is precise, but there is no anesthesia. You feel everything, because every layer of armor has been bypassed.

The teacher-student relationship is a process of cutting through. However, cutting through isn’t a reaction to what is not; it is a participation in what is. It is a deeply creative process.

Eventually something clicks. You realize there is an immense clarity in your disorientation. It becomes obvious that such experiences are breakthroughs. You go back to the guru, hoping that he or she will strip you of all your artificial layers yet again. But this time you are disappointed. They are cold. Instead of playing your little game—allowing you to become dependent upon them—they force you to accept responsibility for your situation. They refuse to confer upon you some kind of knowledge or perspective. Rather, they force you to enter into the process yourself. They force you to start cutting through the layers of superficiality yourself. Acquiring knowledge or points of view is a white collar job. The spiritual path is a blue collar job. We have to get our hands dirty.

Why the teacher-student relationship is not archaic or outdated, but archetypal.

Carl Jung's Interpretation of Philemon, his archetypal Guru.

The principles which define the relationship with the teacher are a greater example of a much subtler dynamic. The teacher is a manifestation of the awakened mind. Spaciousness, clarity, and spontaneity are, in fact, the essence, quality, and characteristics of the enlightened mind. So, being relationship with a complete human being, is being in relationship with your own enlightened capacities. The enlightened mind is the microcosm, and the teacher is the macrocosm.

This sort of relationship challenges the most fundamental dynamics of dualistic consciousness. From the ego’s point of view, this is the anti-relationship. It is a relationship that forces the mind to recognize space. The ego cannot relate to space; without some reference point, some-thing to validate or confirm it’s existence, the ego is nothing but a thought.

If we participate in this chaos—the uncertainty of space infused with a penetrating and indestructible intelligence—we will have no choice but to recover our innate capacity to be honest, genuine, and authentic human beings.

There is no way to do this apart from relationship, as relationship mirrors our hang-ups. These hang-ups are the boundaries that define the places we refuse to go. A relationship centered upon space is a mandala of love. Not a mushy-romantic love, but love in the sense of being spacious enough to accommodate the total person: all the contradiction, creativity, and potential. It is an environment that is spacious enough to accept you as you are, but this spaciousness is challenging. It is an atmosphere that accepts nor rejects anything. This forces us to rediscover our capacity to sit with the things that scare us.

“If you get too close, you get burned; if you stay too far away, you don’t get enough heat.” ~Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

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About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist & Christian spirituality and politics for The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal, The Web of Enlightenment, and is the editor & chief for Henry Harbor--an online magazine concerned with art, culture, spirituality, & politics in the deep South. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Looking for a real bio? Click here to read my story....

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9 Responses to “Playing With Fire: Teacher-Student Relations.”

  1. yogiclarebear says:

    Great article again Benjamin. I felt like I earned a lot about the teacher-student relationship when I read Swami Rama's Living With the Himalayan Masters. I think you really summed up the teacher description: "Rather, they force you to enter into the process yourself."

  2. ilona says:

    Bravo. This is the probably one of the best articles I've ever read about relationships, both romantic and student/teacher and comes at a timely moment for me. I was recently in the physical presence of a teacher with whom I've studied online and whose books I have read; she is my teacher, yet my ego trembles at admitting this to anyone else let alone having the relationship you describe. The quote you chose at the end sums it all up. Again, bravo.

  3. Blake Wilson Blake says:

    Much more eloquent then my explanation: A teacher will tell you when you are full of shit and trust me… we need that.

  4. matthew says:

    Hey Ben. I always enjoy your ego-narratives. I was wondering — have you read "Oneness and Separateness" by Louise Kaplan? It's the best presentation of the psychoanalytic development of the ego structure I've seen. It paints a very sympathetic picture of the egoic skills of abstraction, narrativization, etc. It has provided me with a good balance for the claims about ego structure that characterize many introspective traditions.

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