Bring Your Whole Self! (Thoughts on Teaching Mindfulness)

“Example is not the best way to influence others. It is the only way.” – Albert Schweitzer

The Buddha told his students he was like a finger pointing at the moon. It’s the moon we should look at, not the finger. Look at the truth, not the teacher. The teacher is a mail carrier delivering a message. We’ve got to take it, read it, eat it, be it – realize the truth in and for ourselves. Otherwise it’s a prizewinning envelope that we never open.

A few weeks ago at Deer Park Monastery, I had a chance to work in the garden with Sister Bach Nghiem, a nun whose eyes are gentle, receptive, and kind. She told me that as a novice nun, she spent some time as Thich Nhat Hanh’s attendant, and that she cooks for him when he comes to the U.S. He asks her a lot of questions about her practice, and koans. The best answer, she said, is to breathe and smile. “He teaches only by example,” she told me. “That’s how he teaches. He doesn’t scold.”

Observing Sister Bach Nghiem, I noticed that she embodies Thay’s gentle peacefulness and harmlessness – maybe because she’s spent a lot of time with him. (And her six years of meditation practice didn’t hurt.) I wondered if I could absorb some of those qualities by spending time with her. People rub off on each other; we shape ourselves after those who surround us — so it’s good to choose our friends carefully. A lot of us have spent a few hours with Zen masters, and now we like to put on a good Zen show and talk Buddha-talk, but how do we act when nobody’s watching?

Lately I’ve been observing my own behavior, knowing it might be contagious. At Deer Park, newcomers to meditation asked me lots of questions (what’s a bodhisattva? why do we face the wall in meditation? how do I stay peaceful when my sons are fighting?) which I tried to answer, sorely aware of my ignorance. Even as the newcomers questioned me and studied my meditation practice, I felt like their student, watching their careful beginner’s-mind walking meditation. I was asked to lead a discussion group for visitors, and found that learning is the real reward of teaching, as other folks shared their wisdom and showed me how they invite the bell.

Recently I started volunteering in a prison with a group that facilitates Buddhist meditation (fodder for a separate blog entry). I came up against some big insecurities about facilitating, being a teacher, being an authority. After hearing me vent these fears, my mentor just said: “Great! Perfect!” It’s a rich opportunity to feel the emotion, to touch the soft spot, to be fully human. My mentor also taught me what she learned in Buddhist chaplaincy training: “Bring your whole self to the work. Don’t try to be holy. Just bring your whole self, all of you. They can tell if you’re faking it. But at the same time, don’t make it about you.”

If I’m trying to be a teacher, it’s pretense. If I’m just talking about mindfulness, it feels hypocritical. When I’m practicing mindfulness for the sake of practice itself, I stop thinking about whether it’s being observed; quit hoping people will learn from me. Then I really enjoy life, and it’s more likely other people will enjoy it with me.

Trying to teach mindfulness is funny. You only teach it by embodying it. You realize that most of the time, you’re not even pointing at the moon. You’re aiming at some obscure star cluster and the moon is off to the side, chuckling at you. My best teaching is this: “Here’s me, with all my foibles and fumbles and sufferings and joys. Here’s how I’m trying to be a kinder person. What about you?” My best offering is to be my whole unholy self, and you can be yours. Bless the moon for shining on us no matter what.

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