What Your Pagan Teacher Wants you to Know…About Spiritual Learning

When I was at my hungriest for a teacher one did not magically appear with the answers I wanted to know. Well not in the way I expected. In hindsight I had many teachers. I was passionate, curious and worked hard to understand. I picked up two practices from two different authors that served me very well. One was to question. “The right question is a key.” The other said “do the work, the rest will come, have faith.”

Through my work with spirit in my teens I had already been in a teaching position and I seemed to gather students, or at least people who wanted me to teach them all the time. At first I taught anyone and everyone. I learned a lot from teaching. I still do. When I thought I knew an answer my students would hit me with an interesting curve ball that was not an answer I had thought of.

Teaching can be such a joyful and uplifting thing. It is so educational, healing, and loads of fun. If I give a workshop I have been paid and set a price mostly for the travel, venue and so on, but mostly my teaching has been free. This has led to some really unpleasant situations, ones where I was deeply out of pocket or de-valued. Over the years I’ve had more broken hearts from students than lovers. For every hour they have put in I’ve put in three. It was exhausting and draining and as with many teachers, I burned out. So I stopped teaching.

Yet someone would beg me, plead with me, promise me they would do x y and z and sometimes I relented, and sometimes I didn’t.

A pattern emerged.

I would teach and then they would learn and when they had learned the lesson they needed (not necessarily the ones I had been teaching) off they went. Sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. I felt like a failure. That I was terrible at picking students. What was I doing wrong? Of course the answer was nothing.

What I teach is not found in books, at least not the ones I didn’t write. I give practical spiritual knowledge. Someone’s spiritual path is not for me to dictate, and while I am responsible for what I teach, only the student is responsible for what they learn.

The student is responsible for what they learn.

No teacher can open your mind and transplant knowledge and wisdom into it. Sometimes it requires work, effort and time. Sometimes it will just come. Try and balance mirth and reverence. Give it a joyful heart. Try it their way, try it a hundred different ways. Understand that right now you might not see the point but it might make sense in context. For some reason the parable of the Prince popped into my head.

An Eastern Prince went to study at a Shaolin temple. He was given a bucket of water and told to slap the surface. He did as he was told. “Do it again.” And so he did. He slapped and slapped until the bucket was empty. Wet and sore the Prince wondered what the point was. “What now?” he asked. “Now go to the well, and refill the bucket.” The Prince drew the water, and carried it up the hill. “Now slap the water until it is empty again.” Day after day, week after week the Prince spent all day slapping water. He grew bitter at his pointless task, that he, a Prince was being used so. After a year he went home for the Kings birthday. The whole court buzzing with questions about what marvels he had learned. “Show us!” they begged. “Tell us” they called. In a fit of rage the Prince yelled “ENOUGH” and slammed his hand down on the hardwood table. The whole court murmured in surprise and awe. The table had cracked down the middle and slowly fell into two pieces. Of course the crowd was pleased but the Prince stopped and stared at his hand. He humbly returned to the temple and continued to slap water out of a bucket, this time without any bitterness at all.

Some people spend a day slapping water, think it’s pointless and leave. Rubbishing the teacher or lesson. New things are hard. The spiritual path is not a straight line. It is a spiral and the lesson you are learning will depend on your mind-set.

There is no” Perfect Teacher”

There is this post-Judo-Christian hangover still in the pagan community, and in culture at large that to be spiritual you must also be x. Old, saintly, male, all powerful, whatever it might be, that the teacher must be perfect.

The truth is there are no perfect people, maybe save the Dali Lama and he’s busy. Pagan teachers are human, with all the great and gloriously things that entails. We get sick. We have bad days. We poop. We have complicated relationships. We make mistakes. That doesn’t make us bad teachers, or bad people it makes us human. Of course it is nice to be respected but don’t put us on a pedestal either. We will always fall off. We will always disappoint you. Not because we are bad at what we do, but because the saintly expectation and constraints of “spiritual” simply have ideals in them that nobody I know has yet to achieve. That means just as you will learn imperfectly so you will have imperfect teachers. That is a lesson in itself. No amount of knowledge or spiritual power divorces you from being human. That to be spiritual is not about being perfect, but still striving to be better.

Have a little faith and give it a bit of time.

Everything is rush, rush, rush in the 21st century. Now, now, now. More, more, more. Spiritual growth is much more like growing a garden. You have no idea which seeds will sprout. Which ones will take in the soil. There will be weather, and seasons and then you just have to wait. Sometimes nothing seems to happen. Sometimes everything seems to happen at once. No amount of prayers or foot stamping are going to make a difference. You just have to wait. If you are not seeing “results” with a teacher, please give it time. Six months a good amount, of course a year is better. Do the meditations even if you don’t “get it”. Drink the extra water. Talk to the trees and rocks. Spiritual growth takes time. Trust the process. Have a little faith.

Sometimes it just doesn’t work.

That said some teachers just rub you the wrong way. As a student I respond will to sarcasm and praise. I don’t like being yelled at. I was learning Tae Kwan do and my teacher’s teacher took over his class. He yelled. Not if you made a mistake, or were being annoying, I mean he yelled the whole time, like a drill Sergeant. He would just yell, sometimes random instructions without any context. I think I stuck it out three months, maybe a bit longer. He was a bully who didn’t care about your opinion and after he signed my daughter up for a pattern competition without my permission (which she hated) I had had enough. Of course I learned a lot from him too. Mostly what not to do. Don’t get me wrong there are definitely times I need to get yelled at. I’m a stubborn, pig-headed, red-head and sometimes every once in a while I need someone to call me out.

With every will in the world, some people don’t mesh. That’s okay too. Just try not to do the blame game either. There are of course terrible teachers out there but in reality they are few and far between. The same with terrible students. Like all relationships the teacher student one is about finding one that works for you.