We teach astride the delicate teeter totter of confidence and humility.
It’s a dance we must learn by doing, usually in front of a crowd. Some days I get it just right, and this is where God enters the room and uses my mouth to make words that I’ve certainly never considered stringing together, or suggests a sequence that unfolds quite naturally for the folks who have gathered, rather than the sequence I had prepared. Sometimes it’s a freak accident of Pandora who deviated mysteriously from my playlist into “songs I might like,” or a particular way the streetlights shine in, landing shadows in divine arrangements while everyone rests in savasana.
I know it, and sometimes the students know it, too.
My adorable tendency is to shrink into the shadows when someone approaches me after class to offer a compliment. They say things like “class was great” or “I loved your playlist” or “what was that thing you said during our eighteenth uttkatasana?” Your tendency might be to let your ego step forward and accept the praise and responsibility, as though you were personally responsible for the transcendent experience of the room.
In either case, running to humility or over-confidence, you slip to one side of the teeter totter and must prepare for a hard landing. I did this for years, attempting to shirk the compliments or occasionally feigning bravado, until I overheard my teacher respond from the center point, with grace.
“Thank you. If you received benefit from my teaching, it is because I have done well at transmitting what was taught to me. If it did not resonate, it was my error.”
This idea is not new, and not mine, and not his, and that is the actual point here. Teachers are not sitting around creating brilliance, they are transmitting it. Synthesizing it for those eager to receive it. Assembling an artful mosaic of all of their life experiences, all of the teachings they have received, into something that resonates with the moment at hand. Some teachers describe this experience as “being a vessel” or a “conduit” and I liken my teaching to this as well. There is craftsmanship and artistry – but in the giant cosmic game of telephone, it’s doing your best to be of service to the listener with integrity for what you have heard. The mistake, as Yoda is rather famous for saying, is “trying.”
In my world, I cannot answer a question without someone asking it. I’ve tried speaking to a blank microphone, or teaching to camera, and it makes me feel uncomfortably naked. Not ashamed, but incomplete. Like my ego is hanging out.
It wasn’t until a few years into working and traveling with my teacher that I chatted with my ex-husband, who was traveling and working with his teacher, that we landed on a common experience.
“I thought the point of my role was to coordinate travel, adjust microphones, and obtain bottles of water. But actually? I think he’s teaching to ME.”
I was a plant.
So was he.
(so are you)
Skillful teaching is answering the question in the room, which requires hearing the question and the answer simultaneously. If the ego steps in, the question cannot be heard. If the imposter steps up, the answer cannot be articulated.
And it was in this conversation, and a few conversations since, that I have learned to have an appropriate, scripted response when someone tells me they learned or had a meaningful experience.
“It is an honor to my teachers.”
Your teaching is not your teaching, it flows through you.
You have a vital, essential, and infinitesimally small role to play in the process: to hold the hand of the teacher and the student, and let God speak.