How was it for you? Reporting on the experience of being a teacher.

June 19, 2015   |   31 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites

I just finished teaching two retreats at Dechen Choling Retreat Center in France, “The Open Heart Retreat” followed by “Fearless Creativity: A Meditation and Writing Retreat.” On the last day of the last program, a student kindly asked what it felt like for me when a retreat was over. Our group was sitting at the breakfast table in the main building, a Chateau dating back more than a hundred years. The land was in full June bloom and the only sounds were bird calls. We were so far away from our regular lives, whether in New York, London, Amsterdam, or right down the road in the village and I could feel the glow of retreat all around. There were expressions of appreciation for what we had experienced and also sadness at leaving this place and each other. The writing retreat was quite small, only eight of us, which made the connections even more palpable: We were seven women and one man who, in his closing piece of writing, referred to the fearsome power of walking into the retreat hall to discover “seven witches.” We cackled with delight.

“Retreat magic” refers to the feeling one gets after days and days of quieting the mind and turning inward. It is far from sleepy. It is not particularly “relaxing,” rather, it is enlivening, a way of coming back into being. Just as with birth, the process begins with discomfort and ends, hopefully, in the arms of love (one’s own). As the mind quietens through meditation and, in our case, a lot of time spent writing, it assumes a different relationship to time. Each day seems endless and when the retreat schedule is carefully followed, one is simply carried off to deeper realms. I say “simply” but I do not mean that it is easy, I mean that it is direct.

As their teacher, I see that the process is happening by the changes in my students’ faces. Brows relax. Eyes soften. Color returns to cheeks and lips are un-pursed. A general air of relaxed wakefulness replaces the rattled vigilance we all enter with. I also know it happens because of what they say. “I had forgotten who I was.” “I remembered how to find joy.” “I experienced gratitude for my life.” With each passing hour, time goes even slower and the glow deepens. It is wonderful and quite surreal.

Don’t get me wrong, there are also moments, hours, days, even, of sadness, remorse, or great discomfort as forgotten or resisted wounds recall themselves to each student. But somehow—and this is the magic part—the retreat container speeds fruition. They are dancing with a process and it is the dance itself that gives confidence, not any particular resolution.

My work is to create the container where this can all unfold. I author the schedule, set a tone, hold the space of discipline and gentleness, and then, most important, step back while also stepping deeply in. My most important job is to respond to each moment and each student within my own heart. My work is to listen carefully (itself a delicate art of stepping toward and away at the same time), connect with what I feel, blend it with what they have said and the quality of their presence to offer something useful. To do this, my heart rides on unpredictable winds and thus the primary state for teaching well is vulnerability to one’s students and one’s self. It is very much a discipline.

Throughout, there is no one for me to talk to. (If there are any teachers reading this, I’m sure you understand why I say this and what it feels like.) This loneliness creates an interesting crucible, one which requires further discipline to both maintain and blend in to the environment correctly. It—what I am feeling about myself, them, and the work—cannot be held separate from the work as it is the channel for connection, yet it is almost always a disaster to try to bring it in directly by referencing or explaining it.

When I taught these same two programs in Dechen Choling last year, I learned while on the train from Paris to Limoges that my sister-in-law had committed suicide. I was a mess, utterly confused. My initial plan was to turn right back around and fly home but for a variety of reasons, I stayed. If I had said anything about it to my students, the wrong tone would have been set. However, it was impossible for me to set it aside. In between our sessions, I was on Skype with my brother, his son, my mother, my sister, my husband, trying to stay connected and be there in whatever way I could for them and also for myself, to begin in some way to process this horrible event. In the retreat sessions, I suppose I tried to rely on my wrenched-open heart to bring benefit to the students and healing to myself. Much of it is a blur.

This year, there was no such tragedy, thank goodness. Still, the moment I walked into my room (the same one I had stayed in last year), it all came rushing back, all the crying and anger, the heartbroken conversations with my nephew and brother, the words of strength and courage from my mother, sister, and husband and all the strange bulletins regarding the details and decisions being made. Too, it was days before the second anniversary of my father’s death and I was filled with sorrow. I had brought a photograph of him to create a little shrine in my room to practice for and with him, to honor him and our relationship. It was March and the air was cold. Out the window behind my little shrine, the sunrise mixed with mist. Ghostly, ghostly, everywhere I looked. My main recollection is of staring at his photo and sobbing. Perhaps not the most helpful practice, but the only one I seemed capable of.

This year, the programs seemed to go well, although, really, the teacher is the last person to know for sure. (Other teachers: right?!) Nonetheless, I felt that I had done my job. I had many intimate conversations in an atmosphere of love. I saw that the students had entered into the process wholeheartedly and, at least according to those who talked to me, benefitted. Many kind things were said to me and I saw a lot of love in people’s eyes toward me.

The truth is, all of this love confused me.

On one hand, the main hand, it is wonderful. Who does not long to hear words of appreciation and, beyond hearing them, see and feel them in such dear and beautiful faces? On the other, it traps me into shifting my lifelong view of myself as one who is impossible to love.

In my life, I have had the experience of hearing that I was loved but not particularly feeling it. It was spoken more than it was demonstrated. I’m just not sure how or where to place it in the inner environment. Is it true? Is it truly about me? I hear it as something felt by the one who loves but having little or nothing to do with that love’s professed object, in this case, myself. That is how I am built. The more love is expressed, the more confusing it is, and the more separated I feel from the entire experience. Instead of feeling close to the person, I feel distant from them and a great schism is re-awoken. It is a kind of trauma. My instinctive reaction to an expression of love is to steal it like snatching a cookie off the table before it has cooled and stuff it in my mouth while it singes my tongue. I feel much more comfortable hiding from love. I feel so at ease with the assumption that no one will actually see me and, if they do, will misinterpret me to the extent that my solitude will remain protected.

Also, just as for everyone, at the end of a retreat my emotions are raw and my reactions hard to predict. At one point in the first program (the Open Heart Retreat), a participant expressed great distaste for one of the exercises I had asked everyone to do. He said he hated it and even hated me a little bit for asking. Instead of saying all of this from his seat, he got up in front of the room (about 30 people) to express himself. I truly knew that malice toward me was not his point and that he was expressing what the exercise brought up in him. He fully acknowledged that anger was his problematic default response to emotional discomfort. Still, it was a bit of a shocking moment. He hated what I had asked of him? He even hated me a little? There was a silence and then others spoke up to express that they had found the exercise valuable or to assure him that he should feel comfortable expressing what he felt and that he was appreciated for taking the risk. I agreed! However, I was crumbling on the inside. His words hurt me and I could feel waves of shame begin to roil. I heard a cacophony of voices within, rushing to my defense. Arguing with him. Dismissing him. Seeking to categorize him as fearful and small-minded while at the same exact moment seeing that this was 100% true of myself. I was afraid and my mind was shrinking from him and from the room. I wanted to cry.

Luckily, the lunch break came soon after and I made it to my room before bursting into tears. I cried for a long time. Each time I thought the bout was over, it came back. I was a bad teacher, stupid. Who was I kidding? I felt weak and small. Everything I was sad about in my whole life began to pile on. My dad died. I miss my husband. I have not accomplished my goals in life. I hate the food here. I want a decent cup of tea, is that too much to fucking ask. No one is thinking about me. My self-absorption has no end and I will never become enlightened. And on and on. Until I stopped. It was quite a messy display and I hated and enjoyed it in equal measure.

So, on the final morning when this particular (and lovely) student asked me how I felt, all of this arose in a jumble along with the knowledge that to answer such a question is tricky. There is an important non-parity between student and teacher. It has nothing to do with superior/inferior or enlightened/unenlightened, obviously. I am absolutely no different than any of them. However, for various reasons (and because I had prepared for it due to karma and other mysteries), at this moment and for these people, I happened to hold the seat of teacher. (To teach well, I have learned, it is important to continually acknowledge this mystery to oneself and appreciate it. Forgetting it creates confusion, which is the opposite of what teachers are supposed to do.) If I attempt to bring someone into my experience, problems arise. If for some reason a student tries to enter my experience, this too signals a problem and is to be assiduously avoided. So it is strange. I am right here with you and also completely alone, I wanted to say.

That is how it feels to me when retreat is over. I’m not sure what I actually did say, but so I say now.

IMG_2538

 

 

categorized in:

31 Comments

  • Posted by:  Brian

    Susan, I have read “How was it for you” several times. I recently attended the ‘Life as celebration” retreat at Karme Choling in Vermont and found my emotions upon leaving to be initially of a sad nature but soon after I became a softer, Gentler and different person. I miss the environment of retreat but I took the profound teachings of the Sakyong and Lodro back to Canada and my life. Enough about my experience after all I am primarily responding to your thoughts. I find your writing to be deep, thoughtful and wholesome and exploding with the kindness and gentleness that we all hope the world as a whole will some day exhibit. I am a Student, a practitioner and like a sponge I learn from Teachers like yourself who work tirelessly to enrich us and to show us the great Dharma and how to make this life manageable and with true meaning in every essence of the words. As I read this over again it seems at some point during this retreat the roles changed for perhaps only for a short time…you became the Student learning from those around you. What an incredible example of how we are all interconnected and dependent on one another to advance on the path of understanding. I left Karme Choling with this incredible connection to so many people and today I feel the very same reading your article. Thank you Susan..Thank you all for Reading. Peace! Brian

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Brian, how lovely to be able to feel what is in your heart. It comes across so strongly. And, yes, we are indeed the luckiest students of all time. Occasionally we get to be teachers too, which simply deepens the experience of being a student.

      Know that the sweet sadness of leaving retreat is a sign that your heart has mixed with the heart of both Sakyong Mipham and Lodro. This doesn’t change! Sending more love into the mix–Susan

  • Posted by:  Dennis Hunter

    Susan, this resonates for me deeply. I find myself often, these days, in the mysterious karmic situation of teaching (both meditation and yoga). Students tell me that the teachings I share with them are helpful and I can see evidence of that in their faces and in the changes that take place in them, but I still go through all the same internal convolutions of self-doubt and questioning my own value as a teacher. Like you, I often long for someone with whom to share not only whatever “content” I might offer through teaching but to share the mystifying, heart-opening, heart-wrenching, exhilarating and harrowing (and yes, lonely) experiences of finding oneself in the shoes or seat of a teacher. Thank you for writing and sharing this.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      And thank you for responding so we can have this dialog. It is good to rely on each other while also recognizing the essential loneliness of the situation. In some way, though, the inner dialogue with the Guru is never stronger than when teaching, at least that is what I find. So, there’s that…

  • Posted by:  Lodro Rinzler

    I love you Susan.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      I love you too, Lodro.

  • Posted by:  Aurélie

    I second that.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      And I second it to you, too, wonderful Aurélie!

      • Posted by:  Anne

        I second that to both of you!

        • Posted by:  Susan Piver

          And I third it to you, Anne!

  • Posted by:  Shell Parsons

    Oh my, Susan. Your words completely took my breath away. I apologise for the length of this post reply but there is so much that I just had to say. I first read this post 12 hours ago and it really moved me. I had a friend staying over and shared it with her and she was equally affected. It is only now that I have the time to sit down and write a detailed comment.

    At the start of your post I felt a longing, a longing to one day experience your wonderful writer’s retreat at Dechen Choling. “A general air of relaxed wakefulness replaces the rattled vigilance we all enter with”; oh how truly blissful that sounds to me. When you said “My work is to create the container where this can all unfold”, I know you were refering to the retreat but my heart and mind immediately thought of the Sangha as this is something you have also achieved so beautifully there<3 At this point I felt the warm glow of your words and then in an instant I felt your loneliness, your pain. It was palpable. My heart ached for you. What incredible inner strength and grace you possess that you forged ahead, amidst the darkest depths of your own pain, to share your gifts with others. I am humbled.

    When you spoke of your intention to remember your father with your practice and then shared with us all, "My main recollection is of staring at his photo and sobbing. Perhaps not the most helpful practice, but the only one I seemed capable of", I was yet again reminded of your authenticity. You tell it like it is/was, not creating the picture perfect image of how you wanted it to be. That reminds us to be honest and forgiving of ourselves when things don't go how we planned.

    The words that followed caught me totally off-guard, "it traps me into shifting my lifelong view of myself as one who is impossible to love." How could someone who is so loving and supportive of the people within the OHP, despite not knowing us all intimately, and who is loved right back, ever think she is impossible to love? I felt sad when you said that you heard you were loved but didn't feel it. I hope by telling you this that the "great schism isn't re-awoken". I have been truly blessed to have felt deeply loved by family and friends and can't imagine if that weren't the case.

    I hate conflict. I want to be liked. I think it is a quality in most of us. I can't imagine going up to someone and saying that I hated them a little just because they took me out of my comfort zone. It goes to show the power of another's words. The words he said weren't about you….they were about him. But unbeknown to him, they set off a spiralling of thoughts within you; self-doubt, loneliness, a fear of failure. Another reminder to be gentle when speaking to another person, you don't know what lays beneath the veneer that they present to the world.

    So thank you for your moving post and just one more thing….."a decent cup of tea", no, that's not too much to f*&%$ing ask for:-)

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Oh, Shell, I loved reading this response! Every word of it. Thank you so much for taking the time to respond so carefully and lovingly. It means so much.

      Our exchange reminds me yet again how much our work together benefits me. It spurs me to go deeper. I am always so grateful when I take the chance to share from my own life.

      Sending much, much love, Susan (while drinking a decent cup of f#*ing tea….)

      • Posted by:  Susan Piver

        And come to the writer’s retreat next year!! Same time, same place.

        • Posted by:  Shell Parsons

          If I win Lotto between now and then I’ll be there with bells on!!x

      • Posted by:  Shell Parsons

        Much, much love to you too beautiful lady.x

  • Posted by:  Edith O Nuallain

    One of the most authentic, beautiful and life affirming posts I have ever read, and that these words come from your own deep centre Susan reminds me again of why I signed up for your OHP. You are a wonderful teacher, mentor and guide.

    • Posted by:  Shell Parsons

      Totally agree Edith.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Thank you, Edith. Thank you, thank you.

  • Posted by:  Cathy

    Dear Susan,
    i’m a newbie both to meditation and to the OHP. Yet, thanks to your guidance I am gentler with myself when I don’t tick off all my daily to-do list. I’m exploding less, and when I explode it’s in a slightly gentle way — when my mother gets offended at me for not wanting the stew, oranges, garbage bags and bananas she insists on giving me every time I visit, which is about three times a week. And for the first time in my life, I am starting to feel compassion for my Asperger father’s unintentional plight when his words hurt his loved ones. So thank you – your teaching is giving light to a family filled with pain for almost fifty years.

    I am particularly inspired and moved by your efforts to accept life’s givings. You are strong through your vulnerability. Your continuous effort to be human is truly humbling and inspiring. I look forward to a retreat under your guidance.

    Thank you Susan.

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Cathy, it sounds like your practice is going extremely well. I’m so glad we are practicing together to meet disappointment, irritation, and unkindness toward one’s self. This is a good practice! Hope to see you on retreat one day. Susan

  • Posted by:  Pilar

    Thank you very much for your honesty! It teaches me so much! Thank you very much for showing youself in such a deeply way,

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Pilar, you are so welcome. I am so happy to know you.

  • Posted by:  jane

    You write beautifully. Awesome lady you are. Thank you for sharing yourself, open-ness and for your weekly meditations.
    Continued respect and love
    xx

    • Posted by:  Susan Piver

      Thank you, Jane. It is good to practice together!

  • Posted by:  Leigh Anne Buyon

    Susan – Thank you for such a lovely piece of writing. I am so blessed today that I got to read this as I was really challenged this morning in my class as a yoga teacher. For the past couple of months every aspect of my life is undergoing enormous change and I often feel overwhelmed and, at times, either spacey in my head or emotionally raw like an open wound. And yet I go and I teach and keep all this energy to myself, for I too believe in creating the container that allows others to feel safe and open. This morning I experienced a moment where I felt overcome by a powerful fear and my entire core became a gaping, sucking hole, and out of nowhere I was moving into a full on panic attack. I didn’t know whether to get up and excuse myself or stay in posture. And then I thought, “what would I suggest a student do in this situation.” The instruction would be to sit and breathe into it. And that’s what I did. I continued to instruct and changed the posture to the other side with no one seeing the raging fear unleashing inside of me. I was simultaneosly breathing into my excruciating panic and monitoring my students ability to stay mindful in a deep twisting posture. I don’t have too many moments in teaching when I am not completely focused on my students, but when I find my attention being pulled away it is kind of wonderful to know that I can exist in two states if I have to. Today I had that experience you speak of, I was with my students and I was alone. Thank you again for your heart and your words. Namaste.

  • Posted by:  Jacqui

    Thank you for your thoughtful article and for sharing your experience in such an honest, open-hearted way. I was asked to teach a weekly meditation class this winter (the first time I have done anything like that) and had to begin it less than a week after my father died. It was gut-wrenching and rewarding; lonely and deeply weird. I had frequent attacks of “What the hell am I doing?” and, like your student who stood up about talked about how he hated the exercise, my class launched a small “rebellion” at one point, which ended up being the most productive and useful class we had because we all got to work with our stuff in a real, direct (albeit painful) way. Big gratitude to you!

  • Posted by:  Konchog Dorje

    Buddhadharma is certainly different in Asia

  • Posted by:  Marilyn

    Susan,
    Your description of the internal stress caused by declarations of love and care by others mirrored my experience so exactly that although still a painful truth, those words made me know I’m not alone. I’ve heard many teachers describe the difficulty we Americans, particularly, have in loving ourselves and this inability to believe ourselves to be loveable must be correlated, right? I recognize the separation that words meant to connect cause, and I recognize the deep desire to be able to absorb the love that’s offered. I have my own distinct memory of my mother-in-law offering a tenderness and care that I wasn’t able to receive. Very painful. My intention is to keep creating an environment that encourages my heart to open and one of the ways I create such a space is by enjoying your heartfelt instruction and practice. Thank you so much for including me (and all) in your journey to even more openness and understanding–most especially toward ourselves!

  • Posted by:  Madeleine

    OK where do I start? I didn’t know you this morning but a series of coincidences occurred today, all pointing me in the direction of your website and as soon as I saw it I knew I was home. However, reading this blog really put out the welcome mat.
    Thank you for your vulnerability… I have felt that aloneness and insecurity after teaching almost every mindfulness and yoga class!! I keep hoping it will end, but maybe I just have to welcome it as part of the process. I suppose it’s not unusual when you have a lot of students and they are all going through their own unique processes… in silence!!

    But when I feel I’m not up for it, or not good enough, or having a bad day, I will remember that you did it despite tragic news… and maybe teaching a class is just what I need!

    Thank you,
    Madeleine

  • Posted by:  Elizabeth Louw

    I realize this was written over a year ago and thus my comment comes quite late 🙂 I was moved by the raw honesty and beauty of your writing and wanted to share an experience with you. Obviously my experience is not the same as your experience by any means, but if my sharing can give you any point of reflection that may help you – that is my only goal. (I will really aim for brevity here, I promise! 🙂 )

    I sat for a ‘life-between-lives’ session some time ago – and although I’m still not sure what to do with most of what came out of it, one moment stands out. The therapist regressed me to a point where I was in the womb, and asked me what I was feeling. I started sobbing uncontrollably and said that I felt so unwanted. I have always had a good relationship with my mother (or, at least, not a bad one) and I was shocked by this. After the session I decided to say nothing about it to my mom and just left it.

    Over a year later as I was listening to the Hay House Summit, the episode occurred to me and I realized that – whether this emotion had anything to do with my mother or not – it was a TRUE emotion and that I should honor and recognize it as such. Once I did that, I noticed all the places in my life this emotion had influenced, all the ways in which I was subconsciously doing things to ‘feed’ the wound of feeling unwanted. These behaviors gratified in the moment, but never really healed.

    Then something more bizarre happened. I was awake one night thinking about what one of Michael Newton’s subjects (Journey of Souls books) had to say about ‘the birth of souls’. It’s a pretty innocuous passage – basically about an energy source that sortof “poops” out little particles which are souls. The funny thing is that, while thinking about this, I started sobbing again – and the thought that bubbled up was “Why didn’t God want me? Why did he send me away?” In a blistering moment – I realized that it was possible this feeling of ‘unwanted’ had nothing to do with this lifetime at all – but was something I perhaps carried since my birth as a SOUL through all of my lifetimes. I have finally been able to really work on healing this now that I see it so clearly.

    I offer this experience for whatever it’s worth to you – recognizing it may be nothing, but I do offer it in love as one soul to another. With honor for your journey. If you’ve gotten this far – Thanks 🙂

  • Posted by:  Stacy Morrison

    This is such a breathtakingly beautiful and honest post, and, frankly, is so life-affirming in every possible angle. And so true, and raw, and brutal, and lovely. As is life, as is being human, as is trying to learn and be wise and forgive ourselves and then begin again. I will bookmark this and return to it again and again in my life, I am sure. Thank you, Susan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *