Honouring the Humanity of Our Spiritual Teachers
Yesterday I learnt that one of my spiritual teachers, Tira Brandon-Evans, passed over. I knew she had been ill, yet I was blindsided, and my reaction was anything but stoic.
My relationship with Tira was strictly professional. Outside of some very broad details – she lived in BC, she was married, and recent health challenges that she shared with our community – I knew virtually nothing her personal life. I would not call her a friend or family in that regard; the boundaries were well-established. Why did her passing hit me like a ton of bricks?
What is it about our spiritual teachers that makes that relationship so unique and profound, ahead of many other relationships in our lives that are, in many ways more vital to how we live day to day? I find myself more affected by this loss than the loss of others who, by rights given the closeness of our family ties or friendship, should have affected me more.
In the same vein, I’ve noticed that falling out with our teachers and the hurt or resentment that this can trigger is felt keenly by students, often beyond the scale of whatever event triggered the issue.
I’ve noticed a few patterns when it comes to how we students (and yes, although I do teach, I write this from the perspective of a student, because I believe we never stop learning from those around us) react to and feel about our teachers.
What is a spiritual teacher?
There are three kinds of spiritual teachers.
1. The spirits themselves are the first and most important kind of spiritual teacher. Obviously this post is not focused on those relationships, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge them.
2. Then we have the incidental spiritual teachers.
Those people – spiritual or not – who, through their actions, trigger reactions that serve to teach us important spiritual lessons. I think of a certain medicine person at an Indigenous Clinic where I worked who informed me that, had I been in their home community, I would never be invited to attend ceremony or learn their teachings.
Whatever I felt at hearing those words at the time, the comments propelled me forward and resulted in my finding Tira, who started me on the journey of discovering spirituality from my own cultural perspective. While I don’t suppose there’s any love lost between this healer and me, I must acknowledge that this person was an important teacher to me and, in this case, I do feel the end justifies the means.
3. Teachers we choose/choose us
I have heard it said that it’s the student who chooses the teacher. Other traditions teach that it’s the teacher who chooses the student. I have been chosen and done the choosing, and I still have no idea what’s right, but I do know that when we deliberately enter into spiritual teaching relationships, there is a certain amount of trust and safety involved.
Trust & safety are hallmarks of a spiritual student-teacher relationship
Trust and safety with this relationship is critical because spirituality is a gateway to learning about oneself, and therefore it requires emotional vulnerability. Opening ourselves up emotionally is, in our society, an act of courage.
Spiritual teachers of this ilk create a sacred environment within which we can feel safe exploring our inner darkness, identifying our unhealthy behaviors, soothing our tender emotional selves, and ultimately transforming and stepping into our power.
A pedestal is no place for your teacher
As we go through this transformation, it becomes easy to rely on our teachers, to put them on a pedestal, to forget that they are just people. It’s little wonder why, when our teachers demonstrate their humanity in some way; perhaps a harsh word, a selfish action or even a crossed line, we react viscerally.
In my experience, when I have perceived this emotional safe place between a teacher and myself as compromised, a silly comment feels like a betrayal, a harsh word feels devastating, and a crossed line triggers a year of confusion. I have felt all these things, and it took me years to get the lesson: That our teachers are human.
It reminds of that episode of Leave it to Beaver when they invite Beaver’s new teacher, Miss Landers, over for dinner. As they eat, three of the Beaver’s pals watch from the branches of a nearby tree, and when Miss Landers stands up in her open-toed heels, they exclaim in wonderment “Look! She’s got toes!” Toes on a teacher; who would have thought it?
What can we learn from a spiritual teacher?
Our spiritual teachers don’t just teach us the basics of spirituality: How to journey, how to protect ourselves, how to honour certain spirits, etc. they teach us about how to be a human having a spiritual experience, truly.
For example, how to experience and deal with pain from a spiritual perspective, how to develop the self-awareness we need to measure our own growth, how to release our expectations and surrender to the beauty or pain of the moment, and how to accept that others – even our beloved teachers – are on their own learning journey, and their mistakes often have nothing to do with us.
The truth that I have discovered is that, in order to truly embrace whatever teaching the teacher has presented, we must forgive our teachers for being human, and once we’ve done that, the lesson itself become more poignant, the teacher more sacred, that relationship more important to our lives.
I believe it’s when we resist the teachings because they don’t match up with our expectations either of the teaching itself or how it was delivered that we experience disappointment, resentment and pain towards our teachers.
When I look back on all the spiritual teachers I’ve had in my life, I realize it that the student-teacher relationship is scared and important, but no relationship is perfect, and it’s the imperfection that teaches us best.
I was taught early on that it is not a spiritual teacher’s job to feed our ego, rescue us, or save us from the pain of our own healing journey. In fact, the best thing a teacher can do when a student is in the midst of learning these lessons is to step back – they very thing we often resent their doing.
In time we learn that, when our teachers anger or disappointment us, they are teaching us to think differently, to abandon our comfort zones and sometimes even that it’s time to move on and step into our own power.
They teach us boundaries and inner strength, and that only we can validate our spirituality – nobody can do that for us, no matter how deeply we expect or want them to.
Honouring a sacred relationship
That brings me back to the positive side of these relationships…
The sense of adventure and empowerment when we feel when we work with a new and inspiring teacher. The experience of safety and acceptance, which for many of us is a new feeling. The great relief of knowing that, at least for a time, we are connected with like-minded people who get where we’re at, and that we are not alone.
Is it any wonder that we protect these relationships fiercely and react strongly, good or bad, when something happens?
When I look back to what Tira brought to my life, I see that she inspired me and gave me a sense of purpose. She helped me to empower and validate my experiences. She answered my questions with patience and grace, and she offered me sage advice, about not just about the spirits, but also navigating the world of non-native spirituality.
She also gave me space, protected her boundaries (and thus mine), and reminded me of the importance of healthy relationships on both sides of the veil.
Tira was older than I was when she came to a spiritual life, yet I’m sure that within the span of five minutes, she probably forgot more knowledge that I will ever acquire in my lifetime.
Her passing is a great loss to me personally and to my community of Celtic spiritual people, and a great reminder of the true beauty that can be found in the spiritual student-teacher relationship.
Our human teachers are imperfect and at times frustrating, but these relationships are critical to our growth and transformations. Today, as I reflect on the passing of this wonderful woman, I feel it’s a perfect day to honour all our teachers for their wisdom, their light and most of all, their humanity.