Is a Teacher Necessary?
Article ID: 14757
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: October 9th. 2011
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At a public talk given by one of my teachers, he was asked whether it was necessary to have a teacher. He replied in theory no; but in practice yes. This is an astute answer, which I find pertinent to modern Paganism and its continued growth.
Today, I see many Pagans and people interested in one or more forms of Paganism who are reliant on books. Even after some years of learning, there are those still reading book after book. Going into the local bookstore, I see an extensive section on various Pagan paths with new titles all the time. While it is easy to keep finding new books to read, a spiritual path is a hands-on endeavor. There is a point reached when books serve no further purpose (except as informational reference) and one has to continue farther than books can go.
On Pagan web forums, when I see a question by someone just starting out about how to proceed, the answer is almost always to “read books”. Often it is “read books and keep reading books”. I rarely hear anyone recommend finding a teacher. I find this curious. I can hardly describe how important finding teachers were and are to me. My teachers gave me a solid foundation of skills, energetic awareness and insight into various social conditionings. They showed me that life is far more than mere survival, making money or following the social routine.
Books certainly have utility, but they also have distinct limitations. While books are of use for beginners, they cannot go very far or very deep. Books can convey information, but authentic insight is unreachable by mere information. To see something firsthand is more than just having the idea in the mind. The book can communicate the idea, but not the firsthand experience. There are fields of study, which have a lot of information, such as herbal medicine, and one will benefit from having a good set of reference books. However by growing, tasting, smelling, sleeping next to, harvesting and so on, you will learn about a particular plant in ways that can never be expressed in books.
The book has its limitations. For example, it can only speak in general, while a teacher can speak to the specific. She can see inside the student and comprehend them and respond directly to the person. People tend to pick and choose what they are comfortable with in a book, but sometimes it may be that which they do not feel comfortable with which will benefit them. If the person is weak in some area, they will tend to compensate and cover the weak area. The teacher will see the weak area and expose it so it can be strengthened. The teacher can see when the student is making progress or is stuck. The teacher can demonstrate various practices in person. The teacher sees the subtle nuances and offers important personal corrections in practice. These are the real teachings and books cannot do this. There is no substitute for a good teacher.
A teacher is a living being. There is a living thread passed down to the teacher from their teachers that is then passed along to the student. The teacher has walked many paths, developed themselves in diverse ways and can open doors for the student because that door has been opened in the teacher. It is a form of osmosis. A form of non-verbal, energetic communication that is passed from teacher to student. My teachers opened up energetic pathways and perceptions that cannot be put into words and that books can never convey. I remember all the times I thought I understood something because I had the idea of it from the book only to later laugh at myself when I realized how far the idea was from the actuality that the idea was a representation of.
It is a problem of the modern society and especially since the advent of the Internet for people to mistake the idea for the experience, to mistake the knowledge for the wisdom. The idea is shallow and two-dimensional. It has no depth because it is not alive. It is a mere representation. Just as a map of a city is not the city itself, with all of its sights, sounds, smells, and living energies and vital interactions.
We live in a time when there is a lot of social fear and many people are more comfortable interacting online. There is some atrophy in the ability of people to interact in on a person basis, to trust themselves in open interaction. I also see fear in people regarding teachers. Fear of being taken advantage of or fear of the criticism of friends and family because the teacher apprentice model is viewed with mistrust except under specific conditions. With Paganism, there are not accredited schools and universities that are socially trusted institutions.
Myself, I did not go to university because I was not interested to read about Shamans, I wanted to go study under them. I was not interested to learn about Zen, but rather to go sit in the temple and get hit by the Zen master. I was not interested in scholarship, but rather immersive self-transformation. The real inner learning cannot take place solely in the sterile classroom, but must also happen out in the world. For example, if you want to learn firsthand about the wild spirit of the forest, you have to go out to the wild forest. To learn beyond the ordinary, one has to risk moving outside the status quo.
It has to be recognized that there are plenty of people presenting themselves as teachers of one sort or another who will take advantage of a student; who will use them to obtain money, sex and/or ego gratification. It does not matter how reputable the institution, there are individuals who will abuse their position. And yet it is of such great value to find authentic teachers. It is a problem.
How does the potential students both protect themselves and also be open to learning?
There is no answer for that question other than to trust ones own senses and to understand that one will make mistakes in life. Even if you have a frustrating experience with a teacher, keep trying. A good teacher will see inside you. They may challenge you or criticize you, but they will not belittle you. An authentic teacher will be clear and stable within and you should see some evidence of that. One of the advantages of an authentic teacher is that you learn to recognize the trustworthy and so are more able to recognize the untrustworthy. This is a great asset in life.
Another common social problem is the level of ego today. Many would-be students have a hard time being humble enough to take direction. In our youth centered culture, many young people do not respect their elders and yet they so very much need guidance. This is not to say that one should blindly trust, but if you are going to study with a teacher you have to give them a chance to teach, which means to listen humbly and openly. If it is not working, then move on and try elsewhere. It is an idea in this society that people do not need each other, that they do not need teachers, and that a sharp tongue and a tough exterior and attitude is enough. It isn't. While anyone can theoretically learn and grow to their full potential on their own, in practice this is not what happens.
People need teachers.
Location: Portland, Oregon
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