Don’t Throw the Teacher Overboard

posted by Roman Hanis on November 10th, 2020

When I first became curious about an evolutionary path in my life I thought: “Who needs Gurus when I can just follow spiritual books and experiment with psychedelics?!” Then in 2001 I was fortunate enough to meet Andean healers, indigenous Amazonian elders and lineage holders of Tibetan Buddhism. Meeting these teachers and witnessing first hand their awakened presence made me realize that everything I was doing beforehand was kindergarten in comparison. I still think it’s possible to evolve without real human role models in one’s life- to a degree. Looking back I feel confident that it would have taken many lifetimes to gain the same life experience that I was able to receive from these traditions in a short period of time.

From the moment of my very first contact with living wisdom traditions, I was drawn to the eccentric and unpredictable elders and not interested in the more popular side-show attractions. A consumerist scene around Ayahuasca was just starting back then and along with it came colorful performances catered more towards a bolstered ego than genuine transformation. Although, at times being around some of my “crazy” elders was extremely uncomfortable, I found their presence to be deeply liberating despite my continuously insulted self-importance. Through their behavior they encouraged me to step out of my own predictability. They often stopped me in my tracks, interrupted my habitual patterns and made me question everything that I thought myself to be up to that point.

On one occasion a teacher invited me to his hermit’s abode only to scold and curse me in every possible way just to see if I have a real motivation beyond narcissistic interests. I later discovered he tested everyone who sought him like that. Some would run away, some would curse back, some would try to get aggressive, yet all who took him personally would fail that entry exam. 

Needing to be someone in someone else’s eyes was no longer an option for me simply because these ‘old school’ teachers couldn’t care less about that. Unable to seek approval, affirmation, and recognition I had to either face all that I found unbearable in myself or run away. Desperate with a serious health condition and knowing that wherever I go, there I am, I had no choice but to persevere. I stayed and lived alongside several elders continuously for many years. Contrary to the ideas of our modern world, I found out that the teachers in these traditions are not meant to be worshiped, substitute the parents who never loved you or be some authority figures you need to reenact your rebellious teenage shenanigans with.

It can be terrifying to let go of our identities that have served their purpose of shielding us from the onslaught of the unknown. But at what cost do we cling to this familiar territory? Many defense mechanisms are erected through monumental effort because of simply not knowing that there’s more to us than our empty personality shells. Evolutionary guides on the other hand have explored the boundless mystery outside our comfort zone enough to share how to be resilient in the face of the mind-boggling unknown. Without these kinds of teachers the evolutionary path may easily end back in the swamp of conditioning where we are desperately clinging onto fleeting appearances of happiness.

The Teachers of What it Means to Be Human

What I valued most in my teachers was not their title, their regalia or a role they were playing. They were teachers of what it means to be genuinely human. They had their own shortcomings and their own struggle. What made them teachers was the fact that they neither hid from their imperfections nor ran away from their challenges. Because of that they became real friends to me when I finally began to face my own struggles.

Seeing my teachers accept their share of adversity (which was often greater than my own) as a natural part of life and not something to be avoided, invoked a sense of kinship with them and the beginning of a friendship with myself.

With all due respect to the teachers, it’s also essential for students to peacefully stand for their truth. In these traditions truth is not a philosophical concept but an unconditional state of being that allows you the freedom to embrace all experiences of life without excuses. I never found an external truth that someone else could give me. It’s only when people reflect my own truth back to me, yet on a much deeper level, that they naturally become my teachers. To keep discovering the depth of truth, my dedication towards it has to be stronger than my need for approval.

Alongside my truth, I found the sincere willingness to admit my ignorance and not be intimidated by embarrassment as the liberating key from the drama of the monkey mind. Honest interactions with my teachers, accompanied by powerful initiatory  Ayahuasca ceremonies helped burst the bubble of my self-absorption and revealed a much vaster awareness. After a lifelong belief that I was a garbage can stamped with my name and filled with my experiences, there was an excruciating resistance to losing myself and dying alongside my identity at first. In those moments, having a teacher as a real friend I could relate to for guidance and support was instrumental. That was a deciding factor between the decision to undergo a rite-of-passage or keep reinforcing past traumas of trying to contain the uncontainable.

These ancient mystery initiation schools are NOT about convincing you how special you are and how great your life is. I find ancestral living wisdom to be so healing because it teaches to be present with the miseries and the joys of life while tapping into a limitless reservoir of love. The friendships serve as a pressure cooker for the alchemical transformation to occur. Under continuously increasing pressure all that is not real will break down and our innate indestructible loving nature can emerge. This wisdom is embedded in the way plant medicine ceremonies are led by the Amazonian and Andean people, the vision quests and sweat lodges of Native Americans and the wild Yogic practices of the Himalayas among many other ancient world traditions.

The Blame Game Trap

“The master has failed more times than the beginner has tried.” Stephen McCranie

The living wisdom traditions, I have given my life to sustain encourage everyone to learn and experience reality for themselves. That leaves a lot of room for trial and error, thus inviting personal accountability of ignorance. With some of my teachers I wouldn’t always see eye to eye, which sometimes meant that we had to part our ways. Although my teachers were far from being saints, to vilify and blame them for pointing out the ignorance, which to different degrees is present in us all never made sense to me. In fact it was their imperfection that allowed me to relate to them and learn a great deal as well as develop compassion for their evolutionary path.

Here’s an advice I got early on from one of my teachers:

“If you look for a perfect teacher you will never find them, yet if you try to see something good in everyone you will learn infinitely more than if you would have met that perfect teacher in the first place.”

Over the years I’ve had disagreements with many people and yet was always reminded that everyone can change and life is the greatest teacher of all. I have learned that living wisdom is always right in front of us, yet the stormy weather of the tumultuous mind can make us miss the point. It’s up to each of us to make sure our world doesn’t turn into a competition of who’s better at deceiving others and become dependent on the masks we wear to protect us from the harsh reality at hand. 

I’ve been a stubborn blockhead myself on more than one occasion and found many of the people I locked horns with eventually becoming my dearest life-long friends. True teachers are friends who love the truth more than each other’s personalities. If something bothers you about your friends, I encourage you to have a heart to heart with them. Real friends should be honest with each other, especially when it’s painful or uncomfortable. Don’t impulsively storm off with opinions and judgements. When friends trust each other with honest vulnerability, all sides involved are empowered to be the change. 

The Perfect Teacher is the Perfect Storm 

“Rough seas make the best sailors.” African proverb

Times change and many of my teachers are no longer living today. I am inspired to honor all that they have shared with me by continuously exposing my own elaborate self-deception and support friends on this life journey in doing the same. I keep having a taste of my own medicine and it’s up to each of us to do our own inner work. No one else can be our savior just like no one can be a scapegoat for our problems. My Amazonian teachers’ view was that there is nothing romantic and glorious about being a maestro (master/teacher) and that it basically entails being a recycling/garbage man. If you want to help others help themselves, be ready to be vomited on, at times even literally. 

To be a teacher in these traditions means to always remain a student. Zen masters similarly share that a master is a beginner in every moment. 

This path continues to be a humbling experience for me. I am grateful for all the difficult interpersonal dynamics that open me up to becoming a more patient, forgiving and kind individual while wholeheartedly standing for the truth of who I am. My own kids have since become my greatest teachers because they are masters at pointing out my shortcomings and I keep evolving out of deepest love for them. I then aspire to extend love to all beings out of gratitude for encouraging me to evolve within the eye of the storm that is my life. 

I am grateful for all the teachers guiding my way home to the wisdom of the heart. To me that’s what teachers are for – good friends who realize that we’re all in the same boat together. We can weather all the storms on this shared journey into the heart of all the hearts. I seek perfection in the storms where all beings are teachers and friends. 


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