by Leatrice Asher

(This is a condensed version of the original article published  in The Word Magazine)

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth      

―Albert Einstein

Spiritual vanity is one of the more elusive forms of self-deception—elusive, because when we adjudge something to be “good” or praiseworthy it is more difficult to see how our ambition to be associated with that “goodness” has entrapped us in yet another bias. The problem is that this desire tends to be so imbedded in the human that it becomes extremely difficult to detect it operating within oneself. If one is aware of these aspirations it is often rationalized as a call to duty―to communicate one’s understanding to others. Conversely, we may think of ourselves as the perpetual student, always looking to someone else to show us the way, ease our confusion.

Most certainly, shared communication is part of our humanity and heritage and has a valid motivation as there is a place within each of us that longs for others with whom we can share our language and vision, someone with whom we can plumb the depths. The difficulty arises when that desire (knowingly or unknowingly) is to have our persona associated with that communication; in effect, to don the mantle of “teacher”.  We are all, in some manner, conveyors of information; hopefully, we will do so at the appropriate time and place and with some measure of humility and detachment.

The Sage wears a coarse garment, but carries a jewel in his bosom

―Lao Tze

When we think of the word teacher we immediately think of student, because in order to be a teacher one needs a willing student(s), and vice versa. These very words―  teacher and student―can lend themselves to dualism and the potential to create an imbalance in our thinking because they suggest uneven associations. Depending on how they are used, they may even disguise a desire for power on the one hand, or in the case of the student label a fear of trusting oneself. If either of these mind-sets is present, as is often the case, however subtle, not only will it taint the possibility of creative partnerships but it could lead to deception and corruption as well. This can be true in any field and there are many unfortunate examples among such authority figures as religious leaders, politicians, psychiatrists and educators.

One might argue that as long as understanding (of a particular point(s)) exists between two or more people labels are transcended. But is there then a true alliance? Can there possibly be if relationships are based on unspoken (or implied) terms which suggest superiority or inferiority? Of course, such associations do fulfill a function for many, but are they relationships in the truest sense? Do they result in connection? When connection does exist it becomes a compelling partnership for growth for everyone. And because the communication is not being delivered or received from a position there is no need for either a student or teacher label; there is just the point of connecting. We could call this “oneness”―being of one mind or understanding in that instance.  If we have experienced this we know how wonderful it is to transcend the boundaries of our seeming separateness in this mutual state of agreement.

Words do not belong to anyone and to claim ownership of them may suggest an inclination to want to convert or persuade others or to be regarded as an astute interpreter of particular belief systems.  It is one thing to invite dialogue, quite another to explain information to those we consider less knowledgeable. To take this stance we in effect close the door to the opportunity to learn from others and thus partake of the light that in various degrees shines out from all humans. By the same token, we cannot just throw out the words “teacher” or “student” as they have a legitimate place within our vocabulary. What we can do, however, is examine the underlying meaning and association they hold for us. In other words, is the intent to further divide, or to connect at a deeper level of being? If the intention is to create alliances rather than divisions there can be no personal agendas. And don’t we all gravitate toward, and want to relate to, equals?  Do we not diminish this potential of what we can become as interacting entities if either person has an agenda to place their authority above or below others? Even if one may know more about a particular subject our potential remains the same. When interactions occur among those who hold the same value for their own authority as they do for that of another the opportunity exists to become more together, even if only of the moment. If, on the other hand, our language (and actions) suggests to others that we have superior knowledge does this not contribute to unequal relationships, as well as foster and concretize roles we enact with one another? Would this attitude not taint one’s own progress? Would it not lead others away from discovering and acknowledging their own authority, however bumpy the road, however long it may take? And . . . would this not be an even greater travesty?

When we feel lost and alienated our usual tendency is to look for someone to save us from ourselves. But we do so at the expense of our own originality and discovery and the opportunity to prevail over our lives. It may seem easier to accept someone else’s opinions, make them our authority, but by revering the one who supposedly does know—the one we’ve deemed our leader, teacher or guru—we may settle into a kind of blind devotion and dependency. Such a “solution” ignores the fact that we each have unique lessons to learn. What is appropriate for one person may not be suitable for another, so how can we possibly submit to someone else’s perceptions of our lessons? Furthermore, if we don’t really understand what we are submitting to it becomes easier to swallow some set of ideas that haven’t been validated through our own experiences. Of course, there are people whose difficulties have been so immense that they can only explore them with the help of a therapist or spiritual advisor, someone who can guide them through their fears. Hopefully, that will be a person who will also honor that individual’s particular path and not abuse their position by imposing their own beliefs.

Knowledge is a reservoir that exists within us all; however, if our first response is to always look outward for restoration and healing, trusting ourselves to someone else’s interpretations, we will delay the discovery of our own unique source of wisdom. Don’t we, at some point, have to put aside those words in order to reach our own creative depth? If words spoken or written by another are held sacrosanct, this suggestion may sound unorthodox, even heretical. But to repeat words we’ve read or heard spoken ad infinitum may be to lose an important connection to our own self. On the other hand, if we don’t cling to the words and begin to let go of them, the opportunity then arises to see if our understanding of the words is truly manifesting in our everyday lives.  We may then develop our own mode of expression to align with that understanding, rather than simply repeating what we’ve heard or read. After testing the application in our day to day lives, of whatever information we hold most meaningful, a return to the source of that information may hold more value, having been substantiated through our own reality tests.

A living example of integrity and equanimity is something we can trust, whether observed in another or what we have become through working on ourselves. But if our lives are not changing, if we are not kinder, less angry, less reactive; if the desire for power and prestige has not diminished, if we are still moored in the dualities of praise and blame, then we have not yet become that which we revere. Perhaps it is this very reverence that is impeding our growth. An individual’s experience likely will not look exactly the same as that of his or her teacher/mentor. And because we are all individuals, the language used to communicate that experience will also most likely be different. Individuality is something to rejoice in. If our first response to a problem or question is to parrot someone else our response will tend to be conditioned rather than creative; further, in the case of holding a particular text as a talisman, we run the danger of literalizing it, which could lead to a kind of fundamentalism.

If our own innate wisdom is employed, our own language utilized, then the possibility exists to discover the sovereignty that lies within our very own being. When we trust ourselves to ourselves our own unique journey awaits us and will yield the exact revelations we need in order to no longer feel perplexed or undone when difficulties arise. Certainly we can use one another to help illuminate the journey, but this does not require “special” people, “special” labels because the opportunity exists to learn from every encounter, every situation. And we will if we are open to that possibility. What will occur when we are faced with uncertainty, fear, pain, fragmentation and there is no guru, no psychologist, no religious leader . . . no “teacher” to turn to?

The answer is: we turn toward our own inner land.

We need more independent thinkers in the world – men and women who have arrived at that juncture through a willingness to place confidence in the wisdom that has arisen from their own unique lessons.

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