The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.
– Kahlil Gibran
Maybe it’s the time of year where the calendar creates a trackable milestone, but in the past week, two friends who used to be poo-pooers are now Pathfinders. For one, the path involves 30 minutes of morning sits following his breath; for another it’s been less frequent but magically informative Ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazonian rainforest.
Both mentioned that though they found good and clear guidance, they hadn’t yet met their teachers.
A few years ago, I remember wanting to find my teacher. I was afraid I wouldn’t progress until I found one.
Somehow, that’s shifted. I do have people in my life who I consider to be teachers, and I’ve learned my best teachers are often not human, but experiential.
This year began with my teaching poetry to a group of students at Pacific Lutheran University in Takoma, Washington. A few days before the class, I realized I needed a new approach to teaching a particular body of my work that dealt with family and cultural/spiritual identity to a group who hadn’t been exposed much to poetry or Jews — and how Jews engage with the written word. Somehow things marinaded I woke up one morning knowing how to approach it and created an agenda and handouts from there.
I taught them about four levels Jews can interpret the Torah (which means “Teachings”):
(1) P‘shat — the literal, direct meaning
(2) Remez — the meaning hinted at just underneath the text
(3) Drash — a meaning arrived at by investigating or comparing
(4) Sod — secretive, symbolic, more esoteric interpretations
The first four letters of these words spell “PaRDeS” which means “orchard” — perhaps like the most famous orchard in the Book of Genesis, PaRaDiSe. Sooooo, I tried to teach convincingly, Jews feel like they’re in paradise when they’ve wrestled and arrive at a meaning that resonates. I handed out a list of ways to engage with a poem (because a poem is like a lover; the nuances can take years to sink in) and asked them to dive back in to poems that had perplexed them.
Watching them mark up the text, debate possibilities and emerge with subtler and more courageous interpretations of what my poetry might mean gave me a sense of completion. Any teacher would feel a sense of accomplishment at witnessing what happens when you give students the intellectual equivalents of a map and a compass and let them use their own intelligence and experience to find the way. As a writer, I was awed by how much they found in my work, as determined as Hansel and Gretel to follow the teeniest of half-eaten breadcrumbs.
The day after I flew home, I slipped and fell hard enough to require six stitches below my eyebrow. Like the flu I had before the holidays, even minor injuries can teach you a lot about where you are on your path, about what really matters.
Ironically, I fell after an interaction with someone from my past who is still very much stuck in perceiving the past in the same way he always has. He happens to be a beautiful poet and storyteller, someone who taught me a great deal. I feel blessed remembering that I can always choose how to interpret not just a poem but a poetic encounter, be it a momentary meeting of bone to wood or an entire chapter of my life. I draw metaphors from my boo boo: it hurt a bit and will leave a scar but caused no permanent damage. My vision is clear.
This past weekend, I taught five woman to use their hands to heal themselves and others. I am continually learning what it means to be a teacher, and what it means to find your teacher in everyday experience.
Would love to hear who or what your best teachers have been!