On Teachers and Students

Reflections on “Essential Sufism” edited by James Fadiman & Robert Frager

Teachers and mentors are fundamental to all disciplines and traditions. If a synonym for Sufism in Arabic is “Path” (or tariqah), then parallels exist between Sufism, Taoism (the Way/ ), the Monomyth (the Hero’s Journey), and probably every spiritual or narrative tradition known to humans.

Similar to a guide, mentor or old wizard in any epic story, teachers serve as guardians of the path in our lives. They test us to ensure our sincerity and devotion to the cause. Whether its spiritual, career, relationship-based or other — A teacher’s primary purpose is to empower us as students to go beyond ourselves. In order to grow, we must undergo ego-death. We must go through many episodes of trying times. Even humiliation. All for the sake of the journey.

“The true teacher knocks down the idol that the student makes of him.” — Rumi

It is too simple to assume the teacher is the truth rather than recognize that the teacher only points toward the truth. The greatest shame is to be a carbon-copy or to even fall short of one’s teacher. A teacher does not exist so we may imitate him or her. A teacher shows us possibilities while delighting the spark in us that more can still be done.

“On all paths of spiritual training, the teacher is of central importance. He or she embodies the teaching as a living representation of the tradition. He or she helps the student to grow beyond the boundaries of self. Because each person can only, by definition, operate inside his or her current limits, outside intervention is indispensable to make the “breakthrough”. My Teacher depicted this state of things with the following analogy: “You can give yourself first aid, putting a bandage on a wound. But you can’t operate on yourself.”

The fundamental changes that the path requires in the students’ worldview and behavior resemble a major operation. The very personality features that the student holds tightest to, with which he or she most strongly identifies on this level, are also the ones that prevent the student from fully becoming what he or she potentially is.

[Rumi has written] “It is necessary to make so great an effort that you are not left standing, in order that you may recognize what it is that will remain.” — Ozelsel

Humility, patience and perseverance are hallmarks of any successful practitioner. A student who surpasses his or her teacher is changed from the student when they first entered the tradition. Beginners often hold onto ego. There seems too much at stake.

Instead of finding something outside of ourselves, a teacher shows us that what we desire actually exists in us from the get-go. We search the world for the treasure without realizing the treasure was with us the whole time. This is one of the fundamental lessons of the Hero’s Journey. The elixir is not outside of us — as fairy tales would have us believe.

We possess the elixir already.

We just have to chip away all the nonsense which surrounds it.

A teacher helps us refine and dig-out what is already here. With their sharp eye and trained hands, a teacher sculpts us into who we truly are.

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