One of the things that really strikes me about Buddhist retreats is how serious, joyless and unfocused they can be. It just feels 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.
I don’t mean that we need to set goals and targets. Spirituality is no-doubt mysterious and it is important to respect the mystery and not over-analyse our practice, 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?
It is also my experience that the mystery of not-knowing exactly why can be fun and exciting. This can be part of the reason we practice. If the mystery is explicit we can approach it with curiosity and playfulness and it becomes a lot easier to go a lot deeper into our practice. Although that is probably just my approach coming through.
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 so it is more 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. By being explicit about values, we can expect teachers to be embodying these and be able to hold people to them if their behaviour strays too far away from it.
It’s important for teachers to consider these things because it’s 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, impacting 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 way that the people you are teaching are living their lives, you should really consider whether you actually want to be a teacher.
It’s about time we dismantled some of the old hierarchy and structures that exist around spiritual practice. One thing that goes in common across pretty much all spirituality is the search for either freedom or love and the importance of truth.
Hierarchy destroys both of these things. Status is the biggest mask for truth. Whenever someone is more worried about protecting their status than being open, it closes them off to seeing things how they really are.
When we give spiritual leaders a ‘golden ticket’ of unquestionable truth it can mean that they end up sharing messages that are either stupid or actually harmful. Ideas get valued on the perceived merit of whose mouth they came out of, rather than on the merit of the ideas themselves.
Equally, if we are following orders and instructions unquestioningly from one person or from an elite subset of people, then no-one is free or loved. Everyone is bound by their fixed roles in the formal, hierarchical system. Never mind how this can also be a cover-up for explicit abuse.
The other problem with hierarchy is that it inherently favours the people who can commit the most time to being in the system. The people with the power have done well in the hierarchy so they believe that this is a good way of doing things. They probably don’t want to give their students the power to question them, it makes them feel exposed.
There are ways of working together that don’t require any hierarchy, but any step in this direction would be better than the current model, which is that teachers sit at the front doing all the talking and are generally assumed to have the answers. Students sit quietly, listen carefully, do what they’re told and are assumed to know a lot less than the teachers. Considering that spirituality is about exploring and embodying your own experience, this model strikes me as absolutely absurd.
Almost everyone thinks they know what collaborative working is. It is my experience, as a collaborative working expert, that pretty much no-one actually does. It is not cooperation or compromise or a token gesture towards getting feedback from people. It is a radical way to approach life and work.
Whenever I introduce real collaborative or non-hierarchical working into a new group of people they are uncomfortable with what it entails and yet once it is up and running almost everyone finds it a deeply transformative and life-changing experience. It requires everyone to show up and take responsibility for their role in the group. It gives space for everyone’s voice to be heard.
To start with, people who have power don’t like it being taken away, it makes them feel vulnerable and exposed. People lower down the hierarchy don’t like being given responsibility, it makes them worry about getting things wrong and being blamed for mistakes. Real collaborative working principles mitigate both of these and create a culture of self-responsibility and trust in the team that they are working together towards a shared purpose and harnessing everyone’s gifts and wisdom towards this.
If you want to make change in a system or group of people, collaborative working is the only way to do it at any pace and to make the change actually meaningful. Spiritual practice is all about change – changing the way we perceive ourselves and our experience – and I would hope that everyone wants the change to be meaningful, so it makes sense to take on this approach.
This 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 their students should be doing. It also empowers people to try new and interesting ways of doing things, that aren’t fixed structures that were created hundreds or thousands of years ago.
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 relationship and 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 responsibility for their own development and learning, they aren’t expecting someone to be their mum or dad.
The most important step towards less hierarchy and more clarity in our spiritual practice is for everyone to think about what their values and purpose 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.
It can also be used to shape and guide our teachings and as a way to hold ourselves to account. We don’t need to rely on hierarchies to guide us because we have a clear set of values to be our guiding force.
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.
It becomes about the teachings rather than the teacher. We are guided by the values, 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.
In order to get clear on our values and our purpose, there are three different elements that we need to consider: our intentions, our desired outcome and our approach. It’s my experience that it’s best to keep values really simple – boiled down to single words, if possible.
I have shared my values as an appendix to this, to give an example of how this can be done and applied to a real-life situation. I’ve also shared the set of values cards that I’ve designed so you can use these to help you explore your values.