One of the things that really strikes me about a lot of meditation retreats is how serious, joyless and unfocused they can be.
It seems like everyone is there to still on a cushion, with no particular clear purpose behind it. I believe that we need to be a bit more focused with why we are practising and what we hope the intended outcome to be.
We don’t necessarily need to set goals and targets, spirituality is no-doubt mysterious and it is important to respect that mystery, but we can still be a lot clearer about our intentions and the impact that our practice has on our wider life.
A big question that feels deeply important to at least ask is, why do we practice?
So let me ask you. Why do you practice?
If you have never considered this in depth before it is worth doing this intention setting exercise for your own practice.
Values for Teachers
There is no right or wrong way to teach people spiritual or meditative practice. There is room for all the different approaches, but what is important is that traditions and teachers are clear about what their values are so that students can make considered choices.
Spiritual practice is inherently ‘fuzzy’; the purpose is less clear than it is in things like raising a family or running a business. This is partially why it can be difficult to assess whether someone’s behaviour is appropriate and whether they are a good role-model. It’s important to be able to do this for anyone who is entrusted with a leadership position.
It’s important for teachers to consider what their values are because this is a role with such a high level of responsibility. Spiritual leaders and teachers are some of the highest respected people; they shape people’s world views and impact on people’s experiences and beliefs about themselves.
There is a huge amount of power there to either improve people’s lives or harm them. If you aren’t willing to spend time considering what the outcome of the way you are teaching is on the people that you are teaching is, you should really consider whether you actually want to be a teacher.
Hierarchy and Structure
It’s about time we dismantled some of the old hierarchy and structures that exist around spiritual practice.
Spiritual practice should be in service to helping people connect with what feels true, meaningful and alive for them. When we give spiritual leaders a ‘golden ticket’ of unquestionable truth it can mean that they end up undermining other people’s truth at best and sharing messages that are either stupid or actually harmful at worst.
There are ways of working together that don’t require as much hierarchy. Any step in this direction is better than the model where teachers sit at the front doing all the talking and are generally assumed to have the answers, while students sit quietly, listen carefully, do what they’re told and are assumed to know a lot less than the teachers.
Spirituality should support people to explore and embody their own experience. While the traditional model can be useful for sharing some basic information and laying some fundamental groundwork, it isn’t particularly effective at helping people really get in touch with their own experience.
When we loosen the hierarchy, we find that everyone has some wisdom to share. People learn from each other much better when it feels like a friendly space that they are welcome in. This also means there is less pressure on the teacher to know all the answers.
It can become a space in which teachers can share their wisdom and students are more empowered to take this and run with it – to incorporate it into their own development and learning. They aren’t expecting someone to be their mum or dad or to hand them all the answers. They are stepping into their own lives and experience.
The most important step towards less hierarchy and more clarity in our spiritual practice is for everyone to think about what their intentions and values are. These can be our guiding force for how we teach, learn, practice and live. If we can understand them clearly we can communicate them to other people, which helps us all make informed decisions about who we want to practice with and why.
Change and Fluidity
Spiritual practice is all about change – changing the way we perceive ourselves and our experience and changing our relationship to the world and each other.
I would hope that everyone wants that change to be meaningful. In order for this to happen we need to connect with our inner compass – the values that feel most important and that can guide us to move from the heart. Both as practitioners and teachers.
Moving from the heart also has the potential to give teachers more freedom in embodying and sharing the things that they really care about and the ways in which they really want to make a difference in the world, rather than teaching the things they think they should be teaching.
This inner compass can help us shape our teachings and be a way to hold ourselves to account. When we have a clear set of values as our guiding force, we don’t need to rely on hierarchies or traditions so much.
Values don’t require us to be in a certain role for us to be embodying them. Our values can carry across when we are learning, teaching, working, having fun or just being. They increase a sense of fluidity in the way we approach life and practice because we can see that all of these roles give us an opportunity to express and fulfil our values. Once we can see this, we get less het up about trying to get something out of people or achieve a certain level of status.
We are guided by expressing our values in the world, rather than feeling like we have fixed ideas that we want other people to adopt.
This buys us space to all explore the ideas together, rather than have one person dictating a concept or a way of doing things to everyone else.